This article is from the August 2013 issue of Total Politics

Religion, politics and sex.

Three topics which, etiquette demands, should not be raised at the dinner table. Too serious, too divisive, too controversial. Steer clear at all costs.

But for Justin Portal Welby, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, that’s never going to be an option.

Religion is a calling for the leader of the world’s 80 million Anglicans. Politics – Welby sits in the House of Lords – invariably draws the church in to its orbit. And sex, following a series of damaging clerical scandals, is an awkward yet unavoidable subject.

Enthroned in March, Archbishop Welby has wasted little time in making news and raising eyebrows with his views on all three. In less than six months he has called for the creation of church-based credit unions, opposed gay marriage, urged the church to accept women bishops, and issued an apology to the victims of clerical sexual abuse. And the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which Welby is a member of, has published its final report.

It’s quite a list. Speaking during a break from his first General Synod as Archbishop, Welby knows all too well the challenge he faces. “You’re never going to please everybody and in the end you have to do what you see is right,” is his logic when facing a series of balancing acts and challenges which must at times seem impossible.

In some cases, they are greater than the church has ever faced. But then Welby is also a very different type of Archbishop from any who has gone before him.

York, with its ancient walls and magnificent minster, is one of the country’s most historic and beautiful cities. Its university, however, is a 1960s-era concrete jungle, praised on its construction but unlikely to win any prizes for aesthetics today. But it’s here that the Synod is gathering. In junior common rooms and student canteens, priests from across the land mill around, comparing notes and peeling off into private huddles. And on a corridor above them, in a non-descript meeting room equipped with a vast stand-up fan to counter the July heat and some tatty Ikea-lite furniture, sits the Archbishop of Canterbury.

As befits a keen runner – Welby has been spotted jogging around the streets of South London – the Archbishop is a slight man. Dressed in a casual shirt with dog collar removed, and without the instantly recognizable white beard of his predecessor Rowan Williams, Welby slips into a non-Archbishoply guise without much difficulty. Later on, when he changes outfit for the photo shoot, it’s into a plain black clerical shirt. The appearance and surroundings are quite deliberate: on a recent “inspiring” meeting with the Pope, he was most impressed by the pattern which the leader of the Cathlic church is setting “in terms of simplicity... people are fed up of grandstanding and grand behaviour.”

So is he stopped in the streets these days? “I’m still able to take the tube and bus. And that’s just normal,” Welby smiles. “I just do it because in London it’s the quickest way of getting from A to B, but it also means I get to talk to people and it’s also very funny too, the reactions you get.”

Welby, the first Archbishop of Canterbury to take to Twitter, is recognised in the street. “I am quite a bit. And it’s quite fun. I enjoy having conversations with people. If I’m travelling with the kids they giggle away at the faces people make when, you know, it’s the surprise…”

On the university campus, everyone recognises him, and the mood – despite a controversial agenda – appears to be a happy one. “When I became Bishop of Durham and went into the House of Lords, someone said, [and] I don’t know if this is fair or not, that in the Commons when you speak they want you to fail and in the Lords when you speak they want you to succeed – and this is more of a House of Lords feel in that sense. People want you to do well. They want to hear something that they can get hold of.” The new Archbishop, one senses, is being willed to succeed.

Welby’s journey to Lambeth Palace is part of what makes him such an interesting Archbishop. He rolls his eyes when the questions turn to his background, but it is the story of a very 21st century Archbishop.

As a child, politics was never far away for Justin Welby: his great uncle was the former Conservative deputy prime minister R.A. ‘Rab’ Butler, his mother was a secretary to Winston Churchill, and his stepfather has been sitting in the Lords since the 1980s. “There’s politics in the blood,” he says, a mischievous smile breaking out. “I was brought up talking about politics – and really enjoyed that. I remember being forced to watch the budget on TV when I was about five. I didn’t understand a word of it. I thought it was totally boring....”

He even met his mother’s famous employer.

“I met Churchill once for tea. I was five. Obviously I didn’t know any history at five but I do remember it. It was one of my earliest memories. I knew it was really, really important. It was wonderful.” But it was his famous relative who made a more lasting impression. “I got to know Rab a bit. Rab was a remarkable man. Huge sense of humour. Brilliant intellect. Stunningly thoughtful. Very caring. Listening to him talk about politics was quite something.”

Brought up in West London, Welby was educated at Eton and Cambridge. It may sound like a privileged start in life, but he is a child from a broken home. His parents divorced when he was three, with the teenage Welby later caring for his alcoholic father, the son of a German Jewish immigrant (a secret he kept from Justin throughout his life). Gavin Welby died in his 60s when his son was 21.

Justin went on to spend over a decade working as an oil executive in London and Paris. It was a non-religious world, but he remained a believer even after tragedy hit his family. In 1983, his seven- month-old daughter Johanna was killed in a car crash in France. Somehow this awful time in the Welbys’ life brought him closer to God. “What I know is that there are no circumstances so bad that God abandons you. Ever. And that gives a perspective to life which makes almost anything bearable.”

In the late ‘80s, God called him to the church. He joined the congregation at Holy Trinity Brompton, home of the evangelising Alpha Course, and soon decided to leave oil behind. After a theology degree in Durham, Welby was ordained in 1992 and spent 15 years in the Diocese of Coventry. From Coventry Cathedral he moved to Liverpool and then on to Durham; a year later he was announced as Rowan Williams’ successor as Archbishop of Canterbury.

He’s both insider and outsider. An establishment figure but an Archbishop with a CV like no other. A leader of the Church of England whose early moves suggest a determination to modernise while keenly defending traditions.

In the name of reconciliation, Welby has visited some of the more dangerous places on the planet. But the five-day meeting of the General Synod, the church’s legislative body, requires just as much diplomatic care. The last Synod meeting ended in tears as proposals to ordain women bishops were rejected: the stakes, for Welby’s first Synod as Archbishop, are high.

“It is very demanding, it’s one of the addresses that I’ve done recently that I was most nervous about,” says Welby of his first presidential address to a gathering he describes as having “some of the elements of a party conference.” And it is, he argues, “absolutely critical” for the church to be seen to stop squabbling among itself, even if he knows that the Synod won’t bring about a full stop on any disputes. “We’re made up of human beings… there will always be internal problems. That’s just the nature of the beast. So it’s not a case of clearing the decks.”

The question of whether or not to ordain women bishops continues to cause problems. Welby, as he does throughout the interview, answers directly, slowly and with his words chosen carefully. He has been talking to “two sets of people, both of whom are absolutely sincere and not playing games,” in an effort to square the arguments between “scriptural reason and tradition” and those who say, “it’s a good thing to ordain women bishops in biblical terms.” The Synod has voted three to one in favour, but Welby’s mission is to “ensure that the minorities within the church don’t feel that they’re just being chucked out because they’re not in line with the overall policy.”

The church, he says, is “family not friends” – and families stick together.  “We’re not a political party. We belong to the church because God has put us in the church. He’s put us together. You can choose your friends but you’re stuck with your family. We’re stuck with each other so we have to make it work. You don’t have the option of saying ‘well I think you’re wrong – so out’. And therefore the whole debate is actually how we go on together without marginalising and devaluing sincere people who have a different view to the majority.”

For Peter Tatchell, the equal rights campaigner, Welby was “sitting on the fence”. The Archbishop shakes his head. “It quite astonished me. I looked at that and thought ‘good grief’, I’ve been saying for a long time that I’m absolutely committed to the ordination of women… so how that is sitting on the fence I’m slightly at a loss.”

Then there’s the vexing issue of same-sex marriage. Welby is opposed, arguing that it will undermine family life, but has also called on the church to “accept there is a revolution in the area of sexuality” following the bill’s progress through Parliament. He makes his position clear: “There are traditions and understandings within this country which challenge the idea of same-sex marriage – and I’m being very specific there, I’m not saying of being gay, I’m saying of same-sex marriage.”

Defending tradition on the one hand. Determination to modernise on the other. It’s not easy. “In most areas there is always that tension,” he admits. “There’s all kinds of immense tensions in this: as Christians, we believe we have the most wonderful news for humanity, which is the love of God, shown in Jesus Christ. That’s our job, as the church, both to demonstrate and to speak of it and to draw people into it, to meet Jesus Christ, to become Christians. At the same time we’re a major institution and part of civil society and we’ve got a bunch of traditional baggage, some of it is good, some of it’s less good, so you’re holding all that in tension.”

So how will Justin Welby handle that tension? Rowan Williams’ decade in Lambeth Palace was occasionally difficult and often controversial, with the outgoing Archbishop wearily wishing his successor “the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros.” Where Williams – a Doctor of Philosophy – began to irritate politicians and some parts of the press with his interventions, perhaps Welby’s background gives him a surer platform from which to speak?

“It gives me a public profile which is slightly different, but apart from that I have no more or less authority than Rowan Williams,” he insists. But there is, he admits, a clear difference. “I certainly have a less strong background in philosophy and ethics as a professional discipline… certainly more experience of what happens in practice when you try and apply these things. And you need both.”

But how did that career in oil train him for the work he does today? Welby pauses. “I’m often asked that question. I never know the answer.” But the answer is this: Welby understands the world beyond the church. “It gave me experience of working and living in a world where there was absolutely no interest whatsoever in Christian faith. That’s quite helpful, having worked and lived outside the church, and, as a clergyman, a lot of what I’ve done has been outside the church structures and that’s been very helpful I think.”

With his first career played out against a backdrop of low oil prices and struggling companies, he was also forced to “learn what it is to have to be very realistic about bad situations. It gives you a certain bluntness, perhaps, in saying ‘well let’s face the facts and then decide what we do about them.’”

Welby’s decision to leave a lucrative career and enter the church followed “an overwhelming sense of the call of God, of God saying ‘I want you to do this’”.  But he did not accept willingly. He spoke to his family, prayed, and “thought about it for a long time, very hard, and did my best to get away from it because I was really enjoying what I was doing.” Eventually, after “some hesitation,” the church agreed to ordain Justin Welby – though he was braced for, even perhaps willing, rejection. “When I was asked what I would do if I was turned down, I did say I would go back to London and take my wife out for the best meal I could find to celebrate. There was an element of kicking and screaming.”

If not exactly screaming, one place where Welby intends to make some noise is the House of Lords.

“It’s a high priority in my diary. If we are in there we have the responsibility to contribute and take part effectively and properly in the Lords.” It helps that he relishes the chance. “It’s amazing. If I’m really honest, I thoroughly enjoy that part. It’s an extraordinary place where complex things are dealt with very effectively. It’s very seldom tedious or boring. You’re engaging with some of the brightest people in the country, in fact probably some of the brightest people on the planet. I invariably learn a lot from being there.”

With answers like that, it’s not surprising that the peers of the realm seem so enthused with the new Archbishop – and he is equally motivated by what he, and his fellow men of the cloth, bring to the Lords.

The bishops, he says, “collectively have absolutely unrivalled information about what is going on in society”, because “home for clergy is slap-bang in the middle of the community in which they’re serving… almost every other professional group goes home in the evening.”

And on top of this “extraordinary local knowledge” is the church’s global reach into 165 countries around the world.

Experience is one thing, but should that translate into votes? At the start of last year, the votes of bishops helped inflict a high profile defeat for the government on its welfare reforms, causing some to grumble that bishops should not vote on legislation. Welby disagrees.

“It [not voting] doesn’t seem to me to make much sense. If you think something is right you ought to put your hand up. We don’t whip the bishops. There is no whip. So you’ll quite often find that we actually cancel each other out. It is totally an individual decision. There were rumours around the same-sex marriage bill that pressure had been put on the bishops. Well I’d like to try. It just doesn’t happen.”

Welfare remains a source of contention. On the Sunday of the Synod, the government’s welfare reforms, with their accompanying rhetoric of a nation of ‘strivers’ taking on the ‘scroungers’, were debated. Welby is not impressed. “It’s politics isn’t it, necessarily, but the rhetoric is very damaging,” he argues. “Of course some people are scroungers, some multi-millionaires are scroungers, you find people who behave wrongly, badly, wickedly across the whole range of the social spectrum. It’s nothing to do with being on welfare – I mean goodness knows we’ve looked at the banking system over the last year. And again, at the heart of Christian understanding of human beings is that they are flawed but are made in the image of God: we shouldn’t stereotype people in a particular category as scroungers; that’s not the right way to talk about people.”

Welby also sits on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, and is encouraged by an “ok start… It got off better than I thought it might do” follow the publication of its interim report. His engagement in the financial world goes further still. A plan for the church to develop credit unions has been floated, with Welby proud that the church is “putting our money where our mouth is” in developing an alternative to payday money-lenders. The plan, he says, is to create “credit unions that are both engaged in their communities and are much more professional – and people have got to know about them.”

It will, he adds, be a “decade-long process”, but Welby is ready for the battle with the payday giants. “I’ve met the head of Wonga and I’ve had a very good conversation and I said to him quite bluntly we’re not in the business of trying to legislate you out of existence, we’re trying to compete you out of existence.” He flashes that smile again. “He’s a businessman; he took that well.”

For political guidance, Welby doesn’t have far to turn. The Labour peer Charles Williams is his stepfather. “His advice has been absolutely invaluable – brilliant advice he’s given me since I went into the Lords. He’s very good at quietly saying ‘have you thought of this, have you thought of that?’ Very, very helpful in understanding the mood of the House of Lords and how you approach it, how you work there, how you actually get an audience.”

Given his obvious enjoyment of the parliamentary part of his remit, and given that politics is, as he says, in the blood, did the young Welby ever consider a career in politics? The eyes light up. “Yes…” For which party? “That’s where it didn’t really work out very well, because I couldn’t decide which side to go for. Which is probably why I ended up as a clergyman, as you said earlier, sitting on the fence…”

As Archbishop, sitting on the fence is not an issue for Welby. He has three emphases: the renewal of prayer and the religious life, reconciliation, and evangelism.

He is encouraged that people still turn to the church for birth, marriage, and bereavement, but he knows that across the country congregations aren’t growing. Welby, who has recently appointed the “absolutely brilliant” Chris Russell as his adviser on evangelism, is confident that he can change that.

“Just before I became Archbishop, I did what we call a prayer journey through five cities: Norwich, Coventry, London, Truro, and Chichester, and in total over those five days 12,500 people came. What that said to me was when we are actually very hospitable, when we do manage to give the impression of being signed-up members of the human race, when we’re not bossing people around too much, there’s a very strong response. All the churches I have been in, have been a member of, or for that matter been involved in leading, have grown, and I know an awful lot of rapidly growing churches. You can do it. When people find a community where they are loved and cared for they find that very attractive.” Average weekly attendances in 2011 stood at 1.1m. Welby has a target in mind to aim for – “Not that I am going to tell you!”

For the pews to be filled, evangelism is only part of the challenge. Welby’s enthronement did not see an end to a string of damaging revelations concerning the abuse of vulnerable people by senior church figures – and the Church of England, he says, is not through the worst of this crisis.

“No. We’re not.” Welby’s voice drops in volume. “There are a number of reasons behind that. We got it wrong. Loads of other people did but that’s not an excuse. We got it wrong over many years when society had a different view of these things. Post-Savile, quite rightly – I’m not complaining about this, quite the reverse, I think it’s excellent – police and social services are going back, often over half a century, and seeing where did they get it wrong? Are there survivors of abuse still around who need to have their voices heard? And so there will be cases, some of which go back for 40, 50 years in which people were overlooked and ignored. Utterly inexcusable. So that means quite a bit of stuff will go on coming out.”

The number of contemporary cases are, in his words, “dropping, is negligible”, and he’s proud of an “utterly ruthless” approach to preventing further abuse. “We are so strict now… the whole structure has changed,” he says. “I know a safeguarding officer who went into a very traditional church recently, and a number of people who had been members of the church for years and years and years [were] refusing to fill out the CRB [Criminal Records Bureau] forms. And they said ‘well we’re not going to do it, we’ve been members of this church for 50 or 60 years’, and the safeguarding officer said ‘fine, don’t do it, but you can’t come to church’. It’s changing the culture. And that has effectively, largely happened across the church. We really started turning the screw. And we’re tightening up the whole time.”

So is it maddening that the stories of past abuses will be made public during his time as Archbishop?

Welby agrees that the revelation of a backlog of scandal “makes it look as though everything is bad” but he refuses to feel sorry for himself. “It’s not maddening. The people who have really taken a hammering in this are the survivors of abuse who haven’t been listened to. If you give me the choice between embarrassing the church and listening to someone who has been ignored for 40 years I will go for listening every single time. I am absolutely passionate about this. These people are entrusted to us by God, and I will answer to God on the Day of Judgment for how I have handled it. I feel deeply committed to this.”

The church is not the first ancient institution to face a crisis of popularity. Just a few decades ago, members of the royal family shredded their dignity by donning Olde England fancy dress and taking part in televised party games for It’s a Royal Knock Out, an embarrassing spectacle which was followed by a string of messy royal divorces. The public’s attitude to the Queen and her progeny dipped, but, a quarter of a century on, popularity is at a record high. It’s an exercise in public relations which Welby has watched with admiration.

“It’s genius. Absolute genius,” is the Archbishop’s assessment of the monarchy’s makeover. “If you could bottle it, there wouldn’t be a government in the world that wouldn’t buy it.”

So what is it, exactly?

“It’s not manipulation. It is a genuine, profoundly thoughtful, extremely humble, determined recognition that the world has changed, and a response to that in all sorts of ways. They are probably more popular than they have ever been.” The trick, Welby adds, isn’t that complicated – and the church could learn from it.

“Their basic values haven’t changed. Their commitment to duty, commitment to the country, commitment to fulfilling your promises to God when you were at the coronation, those haven’t changed – and I think the church needs to learn from that. They haven’t changed their basic values and commitment but they have found a way of re-engaging with people. I mean they were never unpopular, it was just there was a difficult patch, but I think the leadership example of Her Majesty is beyond all description.”

A few days after the interview, Justin Welby returns south to Lambeth Palace, where he lives with his wife Caroline and their five children. His can’t hide his enthusiams when discussing what is both a place of work and the family home. “The history falls out of the walls. It’s amazing. Most of the palace is offices – it’s a heavily working building. We have our flat on the top floor. It’s the most wonderful place to live; we are learning how to use it, what it’s there for.”

His predecessor enjoyed watching The Simpsons. Welby less so. “I wouldn’t say I was a big fan but I do watch it and I like it when I watch it.” Instead, he’s a West Wing obsessive. He even dropped a reference – a ‘secret plan to fight inflation’ – into his Synod press conference. “They didn’t all pick that up… We are all addicted to it. A number of my staff are also West Wing fans. It’s a beautifully written series. In the first series there’s an episode where the press spokesman has root canal – ‘woot canal’! – and it is hilariously, hysterically funny. If we have a really bad day we’ll probably open a bottle of something, get a takeaway, if they can find where the palace is, and watch ‘root canal’.”

The Welbys live in a part of the palace known as Cranmer’s Tower. Fans of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall will recognise it as the setting for a supper between Archbishop Cranmer, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. “Absolutely! The first floor of that is where I have my study and the second floor and the third floor is part of the flat. So you’re just thinking ‘gosh, this is it!’ You’re very, very conscious of your predecessors, not least because every corridor is lined with portraits of dead archbishops. There’s an element of Hogwarts about it. You have a bad day and you’re wandering down the corridor in the evening in the gloom and you sort of hear them muttering to themselves ‘Ha! Don’t think much of this one!’”

There have been 104 Archbishops before this one. Welby singles out Cranmer for praise, and name-checks “heroic ancient figures” such as Anselm and Alfege. Tellingly, however, he picks the “pretty unknown” Campbell Tait, Archbishop from 1868 to 1882, as the one that “really interests” him.

“He was Archbishop for quite a long time. He was Dean of Carlisle a couple of jobs before he was Archbishop of Canterbury and while he was in Carlisle there was an epidemic of scarlet fever and five of his children died in a month, and his absolutely adored son died when he was Archbishop of Canterbury. He had a terrible personal knowledge of sorrow and grief. I think in his first five years there were five disestablishment bills introduced into parliament, the church was very divided. The reason I was attracted to him was he enjoyed the House of Lords, he was very good there. By the time he left it wasn’t all sunny and wonderful but it had turned round, and I look at that and think, well, if he could do it, if God can do it in his time… then probably God can do it now.”

As he discusses Archbishop Tait, it’s easy to see why Justin Welby is inspired. He is an Archbishop who has faced personal tragedy. He is leading a church which, if not divided, faces serious challenges to its unity. And he enjoys the Lords. By all accounts, he’s quite good there too.

Religion, politics and sex may be banned topics at the dinner table, but Welby talks engagingly and convincingly about all three. He is passionate about the story he can tell about religion, is determined to engage politically, and refuses to ignore the scandals which continue to cause his institution so much damage. The battle to restore faith in the church continues. Justin Welby, with God alongside him, is determined he can win it his way. He won’t be alone in praying that it works.

***

WHEN THE ARCHBISHOP MET THE POPE...

“He's amazing. He inspired me. He's a brilliant theologian. An intellectual. He's very down to earth. He's got a great sense of humour. First thing he said was: "I'm senior to you." I was quite nervous of meeting him…and I thought, oh, that's not what I expected, I didn’t expect him to be going on status. So I said 'yes I know, Your Holiness." And he said: "Ha! By two days." It was just a joke. He's profoundly a godly, spiritual man, very realistic about the situation his church is facing. We got on very well.  I think he's of the very best and Roman Catholic priests, bishops, cardinals at their best are the most extraordinary people and he's the very, very best. He was deeply inspiring.  I think there's a new tide which is fascinating and will spread beyond the church, which he is setting the pattern in terms of simplicity, and I think that will affect politics and all kinds of things: people are fed up of grandstanding and grand behaviour. I'm still able, because I'm not him, poor guy, he can't do this, I'm still able to take the tube and bus.”

CHURCH CREDIT UNIONS…

“That's going quite well at the moment. We're putting our money where our mouth is, we're starting a Church of England staff credit union. You've got have a corporate interest body to identify who's members of the credit union We're starting one of those so we're actually getting involved ourselves. We're working steadily with the main trade bodies for the credit unions. There's a major investment coming from BIS of £35m over the next 10 years. The Government has, in the regulatory structure that came through the Financial Services Act last year, cleared space for credit unions through approaches to regulation. We've got to have credit unions that are both engaged in their communities and much more professional, and the third thing is people have got to know about them. It's a decade long process.”

FILLING THE PEWS

“People still tend to turn to the Church in pretty large numbers when something important happens: birth of children, bereavement, or on other occasions. Just before I became archbishop I did what we call a prayer journey through five cities: in Norwich, Coventry, London, Truro, Chichester, and in total over those five days 12500 people came. What that said to me was when we are actually very hospitable, when we do manage to give the impression of being signed up members of the human race, when we're not bossing people around too much there's a very strong response and all the churches I have been in, have been a member of, or for that matter have been involved in leading have grown, and I know an awful lot of rapidly growing churches. The Diocese of London numbers have grown 70 per cent over the last 15 years. You can do it. There's no reason.... my new adviser on evangelism, my old friend Chris Russell, is absolutely brilliant. What he says is they come in because it's community. When people find a community where they are loved and cared for they find that very attractive.”

PROTECTING THE VULNERABLE

“As it were....contemporary, the number of cases is dropping, is negligible, I mean we are so strict now. The whole structure has changed. I know a safeguarding officer who went into a very traditional church recently...a number of people who had been members of the church for years and years and years, refusing to fill out the CRB forms. And they said 'well we’re not going to do it, we've been members of this church for 50 or 60 years', and the safeguarding officer said 'fine, don't do it, but you can't come to church'. We are being utterly ruthless. You often understand why people grumble. If you're an elderly woman and you've been going to church for 50 years you've served the church with great faith and dedication and love, perhaps taught at the Sunday school for 40 years and you've done it brilliantly, you're a retired teacher, and someone comes along and says 'we want to make sure you're not abusing children', you can understand why they think.... But it's changing the culture and that has effectively largely happened across the church from about five or six to ten years ago. We really started turning the screw. And we're tightening up the whole time.”

Tags: Archbishop of canterbury, Issue 61, Justin Welby, Sam Maccrory